The Afterglow by Anthony Cartwright

Black Country alchemy
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The Independent Culture

This is a novel you want to let speak for itself, so passionately concerned is it with voice and taboo, with the pressure of the unsaid on the said, with collective and individual utterance. The afterglow of the title makes us think of memory, how it refines, polishes, re-shapes experience into shapes and textures we can bear. Crucially, in this story of a Black Country working-class community torn apart, almost destroyed, by unemployment and the "me first", consumerist culture, the afterglow refers also to a specific working practice. Middle-aged Ken, one of the novel's main protagonists, reflects on his lost job as a steelworker: "Twenty-one years he'd worked there, on the furnaces and in the meltshop. The glow of the fires used to creep into his dreams... Steelmaking was all about transformation, alchemy, a kind of purification. It wasn't something that could just happen by accident, it took all those men and machines, effort, industry, so that when you did your bit - tapping out the molten metal, for example - there was this sense of belonging to something, of being part of something bigger than yourself."

Ken is too practical and too angry to indulge in nostalgia. He pulls himself back into the present by switching language. His thought is represented as a phonetic transcript of how he talks: "Iss a crime... Yow tek these thousands o blokes, working, mekkin summat, for God's sake, livin theer lives, and the families they had, and the communities arahnd em. Not just the Round Oak, loads o plaeces. An yer just crush it. Just like tha. An yow expect everythin to goo on as normal afterwards. Well, things doh work like tha." For the reader used to conventional, southern, middle-class speech, this rendering of accent reads oddly for the first few pages. Then, as you realise that this rough music is the core of the book, you begin to enjoy it, to hear it sing. In parts the novel is like opera, grand choruses of characters pouring out their tragedies and struggles.

Since the novel deals with a fractured community, it is narrated through different characters' viewpoints in turn. Ken's wife, Mary, is as heroic as he, keeping home and family and hope alive, both stoical and sweet. Like her husband, she nurses memory, expressed in sentences that take up more room inside her heart than any of the words she lets herself use in public: "She remembered school holidays as a girl, walking across the fields to the corner of Cromwell Green and Birmingham Road, before they put the new lanes in, before all the traffic. She'd walk there with her brother and play a game of following Dad, like secret agents, or else he'd pick them up, one in each arm, and carry them back to the kitchen door. He'd wash in the sink with the door open, stripped to the waist, the smell of his soap and of the allotments, his work clothes on the floor full of steel shavings like glitter." This poetry belongs only to the older generation. The younger ones are a much scarier lot, cut off from the old culture of their parents, seeking comfort in casual sex and binge drinking, denying themselves the use of their imaginations, believing that material possessions are all that matters. Well, that's what we're all told these days. With great tenderness, Cartwright reveals the tentative dreams and aspirations for a better life that underlie the seeming heartlessness of his quiet heroes.

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